I
n 650 BC Thales asked “what is the primal substance that makes up all matter?” Since then, we have been searching for oneness. We now call it the search for the unified theory of matter. This search which is as old as philosophy has a value system, or a belief system if you will, buttressing it, independent of the acknowledgment of scientists.

The belief system is this: there is an overarching structure behind all that is and our minds are so constituted that we can figure out what such a structure is; in fact our minds mirror such a structure. Therefore, this search is partly a search for self-knowledge. Back to the ancient Socratic maxim: know thyself. I dare say that without such a belief system no scientific enterprise would have originated in ancient Greece.

In 1961 Thomas Khun reminded us moderns of this unique ancient wisdom with his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was originally printed as an article in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Basically, in this book Kuhn argues that science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, as Aristotle averred, but undergoes periodic revolutions which he dubs “paradigm shifts.”

The ancient Stoics, as they contemplated nature and the cosmos in general begin to notice a strange order and beauty within the perceived complexity of the natural world, an expression of mathematical symmetry and perfection. They considered this rational order truth in its purest form, the hidden code of Nature as it were, the very blueprint of creation. They called it natural law. There were two assumptions behind this belief: that order does not come out accidentally and by pure chance out of chaos; if one finds an orderly mechanism it is illogical not to assume a maker or a master mind (what they called “nous”) behind it.

In more modern terms it would be equivalent to finding a working watch in the street and assuming that all those little wheels came together by pure chance. The other assumption, as already mentioned, was that humans can decipher this order, deconstruct it so to speak, through the diligent application of reason and intuition. And so the poet John Keats could declare in the 19th century that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

Within modernity this friendly relation between truth and beauty has become a belief system in itself, the very life force of science. Some go as far as declaring that science has taken the place of religion. They can say that only in so far as science too helps us transcend our all too human and finite boundaries by lifting us into a transcendent higher level of existence.

That is not too dissimilar from the dream of a Plato all the way to Einstein: to play god by searching for immortal Truth (with a capital t) via reason. In fact, Reason itself (with a capial r) has become a god for many of these philosophers, even when they continue paying lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am thinking here of a Leo Strauss whom some of his own disciples consider a hidden atheist approving of religion as a sort of opium for the people, to keep them docile at the service of the elites who teach philosophy in universities. The textbook which Barry University has approved to teach problems of philosophy was written by an atheist. That is quite intriguing in itself.

Symmetry principles in the natural sciences, from mere tools are transformed by these fanatics of Reason into a dogma of sort. For example, the hidden code of Nature is represented nowadays by the so-called “theory of everything.” The best candidate of this theory is superstring theory, a theoretical construction that shifts the basic atomistic paradigm -- that matter is made of small building blocks -- to a new one whereby vibrating strings in nine spatial dimensions can represent what we measure as particles at lower energies and in 3d. This theory has never been proven, it is just a theory or a belief system of some scientists which is denied by others.

In a democracy one is free to choose one’s belief system but after some twenty five years of attempts to prove the theory empirically, we are still clueless on how to construct a viable superstring model that reproduces our universe. Presently there is a near-infinite number of possible formulations producing many different cosmoses. It does not help much to call these a multiverse. The ineluctable fact is that we don't know even how to write down the equations for string theory to search for plausible solutions. The question naturally arises: is there a single theory behind the myriad phenomena of Nature? Or are we adopting a misguided way to look at creation?

To answer that question we need to look at a more humble and realistic paradigm and it is the one suggested by Giambattista Vico in his New Science (1725). In this opus, the most important of his works re-published and edited in 1744 before his death, he proposes that the only certitudes we can have as creatures created by God together with the Cosmos are those of things and institutions that we ourselves have made, such as language, history, political, religious and economic institutions, and the variety of artifacts created since pre-historic times and comprising human culture.

In short, what Vico is proposing is this, we did not create nature and therefore the hope of understanding it 100% via science is a delusion riding on an illusion. Vico is not debunking science here; he is just saying that it is much more scientific and certain to explore what Man has made; we can do this because other men like us have made these artifacts with the same human mind, albeit the mind of primitive man is quite different from that of rational modern man. Here the problem becomes one of recapturing one’s origins at the price of ending up in what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect,” a sort of rationality and logic closed within itself and eating its own tail. The other side of this coin is this: God has created the cosmos and therefore only He/She can fully understand it.

What Vico is also implying is this: that the world is not perfect in a rational, mathematical sense. Yes, we find symmetries out there, and they are useful. But we should have the humility to see Nature for what it is and not for what we want it to be. Fifty years of particle physics have proven quite disappointing in as much as they have time and again crushed the symmetries that we hoped for. It ought to have also proven that we are not gods or demigods confabulating with the gods of Mount Olympus.

What Vico is also saying is this: science is a construction of the human mind, very useful and successful but nevertheless a limited construction. What we really have are mere models that approximate what we measure with more or less efficiency and proven by experiments and empirical evidence; but we cannot conduct experiments ad infinitum. What we know depends on what we measure, and what we measure is limited by our instruments, we can never be certain of what's hiding in the shadows of our ignorance.

Vico is not here speaking of gods, fairies, and spirits; after all his opus is titled a “science,” not a fable, but it is a novel kind of science. What he is insisting upon is that the cosmos if full of unexpected effects; that we humans can't know all there is to know and therefore we can't ever know if our theory is final or not. There are indeed, paradigm shifts and scientific laws can be superseded by new discoveries. That is to say, we are not gods. That knowledge, if accepted, would be very liberating for assorted philosophical absolutists who have substituted positivism, or the ideology of science to what went by the name of religious faith.

P.S. This article first appeared in Ovi magazine on April 11, 2010.

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Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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